Big fish, not big headlines

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In recent months I have written passionate op-ed columns predicting that unless we vigorously confront the mushrooming corruption in the public domain, like a cancer it will undermine the moral fiber of the nation.

Thus most Israelis would applaud Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz if he were finally to bite the bullet and begin vigorously prosecuting those who have enriched themselves at the expense of the public.

But if Mazuz means business, he should stop posturing. Instead of concentrating on small fry he must systematically target the senior echelons of the establishment who have crossed red lines in the course of improperly promoting their personal interests and frequently also filling their pockets.

It is gratifying that the courts now appear to have begun imposing tough sentences, but apparently, also concentrating primarily against the petty transgressors, rather than the big fish. For example, Nomi Blumenthal improperly provided free overnight hotel layovers for some of her potential supporters. Admittedly she compounded the matter by trying to cover up the impropriety. But for a woman with an unblemished record and a long background of public service to be sentenced to eight months for such a minor transgression is not only cruelly unjust, but bizarre. Would she have been sentenced to prison for bribery had she wined and dined potential supporters in an elegant restaurant instead of giving them a free hotel night? If Nomi Blumenthal goes to jail for such an offense, by the same yardstick many cabinet ministers and MKs would deserve life.

To further highlight these inconsistencies one need only relate to former Likud minister Tzahi Hanegbi who had the gall to publicly boast that he topped his party’s primaries because he was more effective in obtaining better jobs for the boys (his supporters) than other contenders. Hanegbi is now a candidate for Ehud Olmert’s cabinet. Is it remotely conceivable that this man, whose public improprieties make Blumenthal’s one-night hotel freebies pale into insignificance, will now be indicted by Mazuz and receive a major jail sentence? Not likely.

Omri Sharon, after finally being prosecuted for engineering a fraudulent conspiracy involving millions of dollars of political contributions, an illegal act which undoubtedly impacted on the political direction of the entire nation, was sentenced to jail for an equivalent duration to Blumenthal’s punishment for the overnight hotel freebies. Yet Omri Sharon is bitterly appealing against the sentence on the grounds that he got a raw deal.

WHAT TOPS everything is the almost comical display of Mazuz flexing his muscles in relation to Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for allegedly having received discounted accommodation at various hotels over the festivals.

Let me say that I am no great supporter of the Chief Rabbinate. In recent years it has increasingly become plagued by scandal and sleaze and is now regarded as a plaything for the haredim rather than an institution providing spiritual leadership to the nation.

But was Rabbi Metzger’s act of “moral perdition” in receiving discounted hotel accommodation in any way inconsistent with the behavior of most public officials and cabinet ministers? Had Metzger been offered reciprocal under-the-table favors by agreeing for example, to impose less stringent kashrut supervision in return for discounted accommodation, that certainly would have warranted prosecution. Yet the only evidence of a reciprocal benefit was a pathetic hint that one rabbi may have obtained a job of supervising the milking of cows by video! The whole affair is something out of Chelm and Mazuz makes a fool of himself by behaving in this manner.

MORE WORRYING is that Mazuz takes upon himself the mantle of both judge and prosecutor. He publicly concedes that he has insufficient evidence for an indictment against Metzger and closes the investigation. But he then proceeds to pontificate that the chief rabbi’s behavior, renders him unfit to continue in his role, and calls on him to resign. Mazuz seems to have lost the plot. His role is to indict or not indict. When an attorney-general arrogates to himself the role of imposing sanctions on citizens – without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves or prove their innocence in court – that not only assumes guilt before conviction, It effectively abrogates the rule of law.

Paradoxically, Mazuz came to a similar conclusion about Ariel Sharon as he did with Metzger when he announced that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the prime minister’s prosecution. He would never have dared suggest that the prime minister should stand down. The double standard applied by Mazuz shrieks to high heaven.

None of this suggests that the behavior of Rabbi Metzger or Nomi Blumenthal should be sanctioned. On the contrary, if they acted improperly they should be reprimanded or prosecuted. But the small fry should not be made the scapegoats for a rotten system that needs to be cleansed from the top.

That applies even more so at a time when there has been so much odium in relation to alleged improprieties by some of our leading politicians, including former prime ministers and a former president. Contrast the “crimes” committed by Metzger and Blumenthal to the recent exposure by the state comptroller of the obscene misappropriation of millions of shekels from public funds by the senior management of the Bank of Israel.

Ehud Olmert, soon to be prime minister, has the opportunity of opening a new chapter. He can reintroduce collective cabinet responsibility and impose genuine transparency on its members. He can reverse the banana-republic atmosphere where the civil service is politicized and subject to cronyism, and when even critical diplomatic posts are frequently filled by mediocrities rather than by persons of merit.

If the benchmark of corruption in Israel amounted to minor improprieties such as providing overnight hotel freebies or accepting discounted accommodation rates, we might be angered by the shenanigans of the perpetrators. But we would surely sleep better than we do now, being aware of the infinitely more serious levels of corruption that take place at the highest levels of the nation.

The sad truth is that until leading members of the establishment who indulge in improprieties are prosecuted, or the electoral system is amended to enable voters to punish those who exploit the public system for personal gain, nothing will change.

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